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Tensions between Indian government, Church impact Dalits

Dalits, once they become Christian or Muslim lose access to all the benefits that they earlier received from the government
Dalit Christians protest against the discrimination they face in Kumbakonam Diocese in southern India in February 2021

Dalit Christians protest against the discrimination they face in Kumbakonam Diocese in southern India in February 2021. (Photo supplied)

Published: March 28, 2023 05:25 AM GMT
Updated: March 28, 2023 09:35 AM GMT

Ghana Mary, 50, studied government in college, but she said she did not get a job because she was Christian. Her son studied English literature in college.

"Because we are Christians," she said, they lost their government benefits as Dalits, the lowest of the now-outlawed caste system, but they keep the faith "because they have trust and confidence in Jesus."

At a substation of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Tamil Nadu state's Diocese of Chingleput, parishioners discussed the challenges they face. Not all are Dalits, but almost all are day laborers, earning barely enough to get by.

Ramaye, 51, said life is a struggle, and people are afraid things will not change. Her husband is over 80 and cannot get another job; they were betrothed when Ramaye was a child and waited to marry until she was of age. They had six children, four of whom are still alive.

Others spoke of attending college for studies but said they now must do manual labor, like masonry.

In India, Dalits receive government social welfare benefits to help lift them out of poverty. However, once they become Christian or Muslim, they lose those benefits, because their new religions do not recognize the Hindu caste system, a class system that was officially eliminated in 1950 but that remains a social hierarchy.

To varying degrees, Catholic leaders have taken on the fight for Dalit rights. Eastern- and Latin-rite dioceses offer self-help programs for Dalits, and these programs are often supported by international church bodies like the New York-based Pontifical Mission Societies-USA, which helps Latin dioceses. Eastern dioceses, like those of the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches, are helped by the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Some Indian advocates argue that church leaders are not doing enough to fight what they say is pressure on Christians from Hindu extremists, who claim that Christians are taking advantage of the illiterate lower classes to convert Hindus. Sometimes that pressure is subtle; other times, it results in violence.

Cardinal Anthony Poola of Hyderabad made news last August when he became the Catholic Church's first Dalit cardinal. He, like others interviewed by OSV News, spoke of good relations with his local government officials.

But the cardinal said sometimes small incidents put pressure on Catholics. For instance, he recounted what happened when Hindu children arrived at a Catholic-run school dressed not in their uniforms but in special clothes marking a season on the Hindu calendar, even though the special dress "is for the elders," not children.

A religious sister from the school called the parents to take the children home. In retribution, extremists "broke our computers, they destroyed our furniture."

Cardinal Poola said he agreed that some bishops are not advocating enough for Dalit rights: "It's a fact -- some are not doing it" in an effort to maintain peace. However, he said the church needs to fight for the rights of Dalits.

Archbishop Felix Machado of Vasai, secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, which serves all three rites, said the church has fought with all governments, not just the current Hindu nationalist government, to get rights for India's Dalits and tribals. Although church leaders have good relations with local leaders, he said one of the biggest challenges is reaching top federal government officials.

Muslims are 15% of the population, and Christians are 2.5%, "so we (Christians) don't count for them," he said.

"Individually, we are respected well ... but collectively, we are not given our rights," he told OSV News. "I don't want lollipops, but I want our rights."

The archbishop and others disputed claims that Catholics were serving Dalits in order to convert them. He noted that Catholic numbers are diminishing, not increasing. He also noted that the Christian community provides about 35% of education and health care in India -- second only to the government.

Archbishop Machado acknowledged that the situation of Christians is different in different parts of the country. For instance, one village might have only one Christian family, "so they are easy targets."

Several church leaders spoke of good ecumenical relations with other Christians, including mainline Pentecostals. But, they said, fringe groups of Pentecostals might go into a town, pitch a tent and promise people that Jesus will save them and take away their poverty. People feel threatened by outsiders, Archbishop Machado said.

India is "a lot of contradictions," he said, adding that although Indians can be very welcoming, "the wave of hatred (against Christians) at the moment is multiplying."

Archbishop Elias Gonsalves of Nagpur lives in the city with the headquarters of the RSS -- Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist paramilitary volunteer organization. He said his area does not have a lot of trouble with violence against Christians, because people would blame the RSS.

He said RSS leaders would say that fringe Hindu groups are perpetrating the violence -- like fringe Pentecostals are violating some state laws against "forced conversions."

The RSS was founded to motivate people for the cause of a Hindu state, but some Catholic advocates point to the more extremist ideology of Hindutva, which proposes establishing India as a nation based on one culture, one language and one religion. Several people said much of the funding for extremists was coming from groups such as the U.S.-based nonprofit Hindus for Human Rights.

Complicating the situation is that many people see Christians as one big umbrella group and do not differentiate between Christian sects and Catholics.

Archbishop Gonsalves said church leaders are working on strong ecumenical ties and trying to build bridges with Hindu political groups and parties "so they can understand us." But some senior bishops feel like "speaking out has got a double effect."

"It can boomerang on us. So surely the church must be very, very careful," he told OSV News.

In Vasai, Father Richard Dabre said Archbishop Machado has fostered good relations with Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Muslims. The archbishop hosts an interreligious gathering each Christmas night, and people go to each other's houses for religious festivals. Father Dabre said it is part of the archbishop's plan to see "what is good in each one of us."

Jesuit Father Stanislaus Alla, a Delhi-based theologian and ethicist, told OSV News when a Christian institution or an individual works to empower the poor by making them aware of their dignity or fighting for their rights, then the Christian center is seen as a threat. "When you unsettle the socio-cultural hierarchy, then you are seen as a threat. A prophetic stand taken can be risky," he said.

The Jesuit said he believed Pope Francis' 2020 encyclical, "Fratelli Tutti," was "a game changer."

"'Fratelli Tutti' invites us all to recognize people with their religious identities; we are challenged to see the good in their religion and appreciate it. A formidable challenge," he told OSV News.

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